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Make sign language mandatory at all school levels to include the deaf

Opinion
 KSL teacher Martin Njoroge. Learning KSL should be a requirement. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

Mr Anthony Muthembwa from the Kenya Institute of Special Education describes the Deaf culture as the social beliefs, art literary tradition, history, values, and shared institutions of communities affected by deafness and which use sign language as the main means of communication.

The deaf community tends to view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability. Mr Muthembwa also introduced us to the Kenya Sign Language (KSL), an incredibly humbling experience for me.

Any form of disability is stigmatised, yet, it is impossible to speak about inclusivity without a deliberate effort to understand that we are all different in our human experiences, only that some communities are larger than others.

Article 27 of the Constitution provides for equality and freedom from discrimination and subsection 4 prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.

Although there are various categories that fall under disability, encountering deafness in this personal way, made me realise why learning and teaching sign language as a mandatory requirement throughout the school system should be compulsory the same way we learn English and Kiswahili.

Sign language is as distinct as any of our official languages. Under article 7 of the Constitution, Kiswahili is the national language and English and Kiswahili are the official languages. In sub-section 3, the Constitution obliges the State to promote and protect the diversity of our languages including development and use of indigenous languages, KSL, Braille and other communication formats and technologies accessible to persons with disabilities.

This is important to ensure inclusivity of all communities in the democratic, governance and public affairs of Kenya at national and county government levels. Inclusivity is a constitutional imperative and critical for national development, equality, equity, peace, unity and cohesion. The two levels of government are obligated to ensure no one is excluded or left behind.

This requires them to ensure their populations are identified and categorised and adequate budgetary allocations and investment shared equitably. Data and statistics on persons with disabilities should inform planning and budgeting at all levels of government. Yet, finding accurate, current and comprehensive data on specific disability communities is difficult because all persons with disabilities tend to be categorised together the way all women are put in one category.

In 2020, a report on the government funding to support disability inclusion, established that key programmes such as special needs education at primary and secondary level, were not adequately funded, with the National Fund for the Disabled of Kenya and the National Development Fund for Persons with Disabilities having overlapping mandates and supporting similar programmes.

Significantly, the report found that available data is not adequately disaggregated by age, gender and disability.

Learning KSL should be a requirement in our education and school system. The inclusivity of the deaf community cannot happen if there is no data that must inform sufficient budget allocations and investment in facilities, infrastructure and delivery of services.

Therefore, specific affirmative action and equalisation funds and programmes and infrastructure need to be put in place to ensure adequate education facilities at all levels and job opportunities, fair and equitable representation in the public service and appointive positions.

Teachers, lecturers, religious leaders, doctors, advocates and many cadres in public service require basic knowledge of KSL to communicate effectively with members of the deaf community without requiring interpretation to ensure respect for their dignity.

Growing a large constituency of people proficient in KSL is extremely vital for Kenya. This is because there are no secrets among the deaf community as they sign openly and there is a great reservoir of knowledge, experience, expertise, stoicism and resilience within this community that we all could benefit and learn from.

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